“There's no other company on earth that, with a couple of pushes of a button, can infuse capital at that scale, instantly," Eagle says of Txteagle's core vision. The only question left was: what were they going to pay people to do?
"It was a hammer looking for a nail," says Eagle. He initially found interest from Indian companies who wanted to outsource digital work to Africa: things like form processing, data entry and the like. There was, Eagle says, "nothing special about the work," but people could do it just on their cell phones via texting. They didn't need a smartphone or an internet connection. But Eagle found that the demand to do the work caused the pay to drop to next to nothing. The company's core vision was getting blurred.
"We built something that could instantly infuse cash into underserved communities, but just as easily remove it from that community and infuse it into another community where people were willing to work for even less money," Eagle says. He also began to worry that companies would begin to build computers and artificial intelligence engines that would ultimately do this kind of microwork effectively and cheaply, undercutting txteagle's purpose even further.
TxtEagle changed tack, and it's name. Now called JANA, it uses the same mobile technology, but is instead focused on using it to conduct research and marketing. Where txteagle pushed out microwork onto mobiles, JANA sends surveys. A woman in the Philippines, for example, can answer a few questions via text message about what laundry detergent she uses, and get 100 pesos ($2) in phone credit.
Companies, Eagle tells me, spend billions each year on market research in the developing world. "They fly people into the capital, rent land rovers, and then go out in the field to conduct face to face surveys." Eagle thinks JANA could cut company costs significantly, while also providing a bit of financial help to those who opt in to the survey.
The World Bank, Eagle notes, is also using the company's system in a similar way to track food prices around the world by asking people to send how much a kilo of rice costs in various communities. "We decided to focus on tasks that can't, by definition, be outsourced," Eagle says. In other words, the kinds of questions that can only be answered by human beings with local knowledge.
It is an idea that is familiar to Leila Janah, the founder of a non-profit called Samasource and the person widely credited with coining the term microwork.
From its beginnings in 2008, the organisation has grown to employ2,680 full-time workers, mostly in Kenya and India who use computers to tag photos, or type in small bits of data or text. At the end of May, 2012, Samasource says it will have paid around $2m in wages to those workers. The non-profit now counts eBay, WalMart and Microsoft among its clients. It has grown so large, and so fast, that Janah says Samasource decided to build its own piece of "microwork" software, called the SamaHub, to deal with the workload.
"We show them how massive companies depend on big data,” she tells me. “Our workers see that they are no longer disconnected people in Kenya whom the world isn't listening to. They are people who are helping major companies solve big problems. And that knowledge is empowering."
Samasource doesn’t currently offer work on mobiles and is sceptical about the approach. Janah says she worries that the cost of mobile bandwidth will be too high in the countries where it operates, because much of its work requires an internet connection. She also worries about the form factor. "The biggest challenge is that you won't get the quality levels and speed without the keyboard," she says, although admits that tablets may eventually offer a happy medium between mobile and laptop for microwork.